The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Trollope Two Hundred Years Later

In England right now it is already April 24, 2015--the bicentennial of the birth of Anthony Trollope.

I can hear a lot of people saying, so what?

Ah, but I can't be one of them.

That giant orange-ish head looming over the caricatures of Susan Hampshire and Philip Latham? That's him. The Giant Trollope-head, la Caterina and I called that rather odd design choice in the opening credits of The Pallisers, the 1975 BBC adaptation of Trollope's masterful novel cycle. And yet, aesthetics aside, there is a truth to the omnipresence of that bewhiskered face, hovering over his characters. They were real to him, you see, and that is why, as he wrote in his Autobiography:
When my work has been quicker done,--and it has sometimes been done very quickly--the rapidity has been achieved by hot pressure, not in the conception, but in the telling of the story. Instead of writing eight pages a day, I have written sixteen; instead of working five days a week, I have worked seven. I have trebled my usual average, and have done so in circumstances which have enabled me to give up all my thoughts for the time to the book I have been writing. This has generally been done at some quiet spot among the mountains,--where there has been no society, no hunting, no whist, no ordinary household duties. And I am sure that the work so done has had in it the best truth and the highest spirit that I have been able to produce. At such times I have been able to imbue myself thoroughly with the characters I have had in hand. I have wandered alone among the rocks and woods, crying at their grief, laughing at their absurdities, and thoroughly enjoying their joy. I have been impregnated with my own creations till it has been my only excitement to sit with the pen in my hand, and drive my team before me at as quick a pace as I could make them travel.
And they become real for us, his readers.

I was a voracious, if uncritical, reader when I was a boy--I read Agatha Christie by the yard, as eagerly as I read Mark Twain. Rex Stout alongside Dumas with the occasional sci fi relic and a deep soak in Bernard Shaw's plays and prefaces.

But it was reading Trollope--The Warden and Barchester Towers, specifically--that crystallized my own literary taste forever. Oh, I'd read some Dickens, some Poe (a lot of Poe. Did you know he wrote comedy too? It's terrible, but he tried.) Hawthorne shed a light into who I would become as a reader--I read The Scarlet Letter, and thirsted with curiosity to understand the workings of Hester's husband, Roger Chillingworth. (Still do; I may be driven one day to re-tell that tale from the Doctor's perspective if only to get him the hell out of my head.) Because he was real to me in a way very few characters in fiction were. Conflicted, a mix of impulses, cruel and kind. The ruins of a man once great, at least in potential. Hurt, and hurting others.

Then I met Septimus Harding, the eponymous Warden. A devout, good an of God who has, without even noticing it, become enmeshed in a genteel, kindly administered, corruption. A loving soul, generously administering a charitable institution, most of the funds of which support--er, him. His critic, John Bold, is right. On paper, at least. And yet, without Mr Harding, Hiram's Hospital declines into desuetude, and when Rev. Harding dies, his creator writes of him: "And so they buried Mr. Septimus Harding, formerly Warden of Hiram's Hospital in the city of Barchester, of whom the chronicler may say that that city never knew a sweeter gentleman or a better Christian." He has become the moral touchstone of the Barsetshire novels, this compromised, well-meaning, vacillating man.

People are complicated.

In the decades since I have read Trollope, my admiration for his has only grown. I have often enough pointed out that Phineas Redux, in which members of two despised minorities--an Irish Catholic and a Viennese Jewish widow--are the hero and heroine, and Trollope makes the readers cher their happy union--readers who would despise Phineas Finn and Madame Max Goesler were they to meet on the street, mind you. And that's a sign of something. Trollope is not safe. A blog post from Oxford University Press pointed this out recently, though confining its analysis to sexual innuendo in Barchester Towers. But yes; as life in unsafe, so too Trollope isn't safe.

Lady Glencora, the charismatic, charming coquette who matures into a great lady without losing her wit and her vivacity (and incidentally provided Susan Hampshire with the best role of her career), dies in the opening pages of The Duke's Children, leaving us with the stolid, good, dutiful Plantagenet Palliser, now the Duke of Omnium. You know, the much less interesting one. Except--without her, he becomes less fair (he's downright cruel to Marie Finn, who has on multiple occasions been his and Glencora's benefactor), he is brusque with the children he inarticulately but deeply loves. Without the raffish, mercurial Glencora, sober Plantagenet cannot be who he is. He's lost for much of the novel.

People are complicated.

Life isn't safe.

And I'm just dealing with the two novel sequences that are Trollope's best known, nostalgically remembered books, let alone his less well known works. Take his descent into madness in He Knew He Was Right, sympathetic bigamists in Dr. Wortle's School, or acidulous satire in The Way We Live Now. Seemingly blander than Dickens or even Thackeray, bluff, old, "safe" Anthony Trollope outdated them all, pushing boundaries they didn't dream of, and getting away with it, too, because he was "a safe pair of hands." It was an a brilliant con game. He didn't get caught out.

Trollope influenced my own view of human nature more than his more pyrotechnical peers, more than the writers of my own era, who all too often seemed to me to oversimplify, to not quite get it.From him I learned that we are none of us just our worst moments, and that we cannot live on the summit of our best moments, either.

My own novel, Phineas at Bay is, of course, a sequel to the two Phineas novels, and, indeed, to the whole Palliser series. But it is more than that, in intent: It's a thank you to the great psychologist who taught me about human nature, who gave me the understanding to endure the myriad small betrayals and wounds we experience from those who love us both before and after they hurt us--and to forgive them, and accept forgiveness for the hurts I have inflicted in my own turn.

And people surprise for good as well as for bad. Once, many years ago, I was at a social event where a newly engaged couple, both of them friends of mine, were present. One of the women there spitefully insulted the bride to be. Her first defender? A old enemy, eyes flashing with indignation, past dislike forgotten at the sight of the hurt in her old rival's eyes. A very Trollope moment.

People are complicated.

Life isn't safe.

We cannot be reduced to our worst moments. Or our best.

I learned these truths from a man I have never met in the flesh, and yet was among my greatest teachers.

In Phineas at Bay, I tried to evoke Trollope's characters, but also his realistic generosity and tolerance. His insistence that nothing God has created is without worth. In sum, to pass on what I learned from him.

Happy birthday, Anthony Trollope. May your novels be read, re-read and adapted for another two centuries.

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